By Dan Bernstein- senior columnist

(CBS) — Still in search of some kind of identity, the Bears may be closer than ever to finding one.

Sloppy, dumb and self-defeating aren’t the preferred traits teams want defining them, but you have to take what you can get. That’s what they were Sunday in all phases, and it’s possible that is what they are.

The vaunted Marc Trestman offense in its second year of evolution produced only 24 points against a Carolina defense crippled by injuries. For the record, this group of returning skill-position stars under the direction of the newly polished Jay Cutler has yet to score 30 points in a game. Every time it appears they have something working – like the short-passing and screen game, for instance – another aspect does them in.

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Cutler’s first interception was a no-chance flip into heavy coverage, the second a flat-footed overthrow to the waiting safety. He took a sack for a 15-yard loss with 1:19 left in the game despite being outside the tackle and allowed to just throw it away. His fumble ended any hope. This is the same guy constantly praised for his abounding intelligence, when it’s his very lack thereof that has been a limiting factor in losses.

Matt Forte fumbled, too. Linemen took turns missing blocks. Brandon Marshall and Martellus Bennett were not open often enough, and Bennett’s lackadaisical blocking effort was noticed on a pass to Forte that could have been a touchdown.

Still, it was 21-7, and it ended 31-24.

Outside of rookie punter Pat O’Donnell, special teams remain a nightmare. It could be a critical element of stabilizing winnable games like this, yet nothing seems reliable. The Bears are the first team I have ever seen to allow a punt return touchdown to the same returner who was illegally and idiotically smashed to the ground before the ball arrived. No whistle, boys. Play on. And they were offsides on a kickoff.

The incompetence virus has also infected Robbie Gould, who missed a 35-yard field goal attempt. If he’s pulled off the flight home by CDC officials in yellow space suits, we’ll understand.

Mostly unpressured in the second half and running a capable no-huddle attack, Panthers quarterback Cam Newton found the same holes in the cover-2 shells that are there for any decent passer to exploit. Blitzes got blocked, and the middle was open. Greg Olsen’s go-ahead touchdown was scored against a replacement-level player asked to cover him straight up.

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This was an ugly choke job of a loss, and the entire experience of watching the Bears is starting to develop some unfortunate characteristics that keep repeating. The offense gains plenty of yards, only to blow itself up with interceptions and penalties. Every beautiful play call is counterbalanced by something that undermines a drive, every bloom of optimism drained by the foreboding sense of the error to come. The excitement over the remodeled defensive line keeps ebbing, as it’s not doing enough to justify the expenditure, especially at the most important times. Chris Conte gets a concussion. Officials create strange new ways to enforce rules, with this week’s special the “blindside block” in which we can only determine that a defender must be forewarned politely of imminent contact, lest a flag fly.

Broadcasters provide constant distraction, at least, by providing us with an ongoing list of made-up people involved in the action. We know “Alshon Jefferies” well already, but now we have been introduced to Bears “Stephen Paella” and “Calvin Johnson” and former/current general manager “Jerry Emery.” Perhaps those guys would be better, in an alternate universe where these things don’t keep happening.

This is supposed to be a Bears team reliant on an explosive, well-oiled Trestman offense. Instead, it grinds its gears. It’s supposed to be a defense fortified enough to keep games winnable against the NFL’s mass of mediocrity. The special teams are supposed to be something other than a long-form presentation of comedic performance art, as if coached by Andy Kaufman.

Right now, the only thing clear about the Bears is their effort to tell us exactly what kind of team they really are.

Dan Bernstein is a co-host of 670 The Score’s “Boers and Bernstein Show” in afternoon drive. Follow him on Twitter @dan_bernstein and read more of his columns here.